The 10,000 Steps Myth

Walking does a lot more for your health than people realize

By Deborah Jeanne Sergeant

Do you really need to take 10,000 steps a day to stay in great shape? And where did that magic number come from, anyway?

According to Harvard professor of epidemiology I-Min Lee, the notion of walking 10,000 daily steps finds its roots in a branding campaign for a Japanese pedometer. The Japanese writing for 10,000 looks like a person walking.

Manufacturers of tracking products and sneaker companies have adopted the number as a catchy way to market their products.

While a clever marketing campaign, many people cannot find the time or muster the endurance to walk 10,000 steps a day.  

In her research published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, Lee related that women in the study averaging 4,400 daily steps experienced lower mortality rates during the study than those who logged only 2,700 steps. But the positive effect plateaued at 7,500 steps. Going for the 10,000 steps did not seem to bring additional benefit.

The study included 16,000 American women.

“There’s no magic in the 10,000 number,” said Mike Cook, personal trainer and owner Achieve Personal Fitness, Inc. in Snyder. “The idea is to be more active. If taking 10,000 steps helps you be more active, that’s great, but just getting up and doing more than you would is where the benefit is.”

Especially for someone who is otherwise sedentary, he sees merit in setting a goal for walking. However, it’s not for everyone.

For someone who wants to lose weight, the body will adapt and the weight loss will likely plateau.

Or for people with arthritic knees and hips, for example, swimming or water aerobics may be activities that they can perform longer and more regularly than walking.

Cook prefers to take a more generalized approach to increasing activity for fitness than rigidly adhering to a specified number of steps.

Joe Fox, personal trainer, certified functional strength training coach and owner of Train Smart, Buffalo, likes to take a 30-minute walk as one of his physical activities.

“Walking does a lot more for your health than people realize,” Fox said.

Even clients with low back pain find that they can walk with greater comfort than they can do many other activities.

“It is more important for me to get a workout than a walk,” Fox said.

If he must choose, he goes for his cardio and strength training workout over walking, though he likes if he can do both.

“Walking briskly matters,” Fox said. “Walk at least two to two and a half miles per hour to get the maximum medicinal benefit.”

Photo of Mike Cook
Mike Cook, personal trainer and owner Achieve Personal Fitness, Inc. in Snyder. “The idea is to be more active,” he says.

To maintain a healthy level of activity, most people need 30 minutes or more of moderate to vigorous physical activity every day. This can include designated periods of activity, such as time spent engaging in a sport or other movement, or short, frequent spurts of activity, such as lifting free weights before breakfast, and going for a 15-minute walk after lunch and dinner.

While walking can help people lose some weight if they are otherwise sedentary, walking does not burn many calories. For people who need to increase their level of fitness or lose weight, additional exercise at an increased level of vigor will be necessary, along with proper nutrition. 

If tracking steps on a device helps provide motivation, there’s no harm in using it. Some fitness apps build in a social facet where walkers can compete with others’ logged steps. Most allow users to compare their own number of steps per day over time. But missing the 10,000 steps goal should not kindle discouragement. Any amount of physical activity is healthful and better than none. Choosing a physical activity or sport that is enjoyable helps ensure sufficient activity each day.